There have been a lot of things that have happened in Kevin Smith's life since the last film he wrote and directed was released to lukewarm reaction. In no order, he was thrown off an airplane for being too fat, directed a lame buddy cop movie, and with his new film Red State, decided to forgo studio promotion of the film to promote it himself. Using a multi-city tour which included memorabilia auctions, film screenings and question and answer sessions, Red State became more of an event than an anticipated film. But when it comes to said film, the only thing I have to say is something that one of his characters could very easily utter: "What have ye wrought?"
Smith writes and directs the story of three boys who (through a smartphone app) decide to meet up with a woman who is willing and able for sex with all three of them. The woman turns out to be Sara Cooper (Melissa Leo, The Fighter), daughter of right-wing reverend Abin Cooper (Michael Parks, From Dusk Till Dawn). Abin is leader of the Five Points Church, a small but determined group of religious rabble-rousers created in the mold of Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church. They protest funerals and other honorable moments and decry the sins of homosexuality and think it's a scourge on the Western world. The boys are drugged and held by the church, as the punishment for their perceived sins is determined. One of the boys attempts to escape and is shot by one of the worshippers, drawing the attention of a local deputy who was investigating an unrelated incident at the request of the local sheriff (Stephen Root, Everything Must Go). The Sheriff was parked by the side of the road and with another man, something his wife wouldn't approve of. The deputy is killed at the ATF is mobilized to the compound, headed by Special Agent Keenan (John Goodman, Speed Racer). When the situation escalates further, Goodman is conflicted on how to reconcile his orders with his conscience, before the whole thing turns into another Waco incident.
There are several different things going on at play here, but the most important thing may be Smith's evolution as a director. He starts things rather slow and easy and builds them into a frenetic pace, keeping things moving fast and shooting a third act firefight with pretty convincing effectiveness. One could easily see more accomplished action directors shoot the same type of sequences with a larger budget, Smith handles it all with an adeptness not seen in his previous work. For someone who's admired what Smith has been able to accomplish as a director, I have got to say I was both surprised and impressed.
Along with those are a couple of performances from the film. Goodman is in the film for about a third to a half of it and brings a quiet authority to it, one where he delivers the lines with a calm gravitas of someone who has been in the bureaucracy for a long time, and knows how to play things as cynical as they need to. When given orders that he finds distasteful, he ensures he has a way to not get thrown under the bus. On the flip side of the coin, Parks has been receiving his own amount of critical praise for his performance as Abin, and he does have a good combination of charisma and fear inducement, but I think there is something that's lacking in his effort, and it's something that's the fatal flaw in Red State.
It's the writing, and Smith's screenplay and sensibilities in the film are horrid. There are a lot of individual moments that when added up simply make an unpalatable film. Cooper's first act monologue/rant about the homosexual danger in society goes entirely too long, even for an antagonist. The kids used to carry the story in the first act are decent though you're not given much more reason to sympathize with them than in an Eli Roth film, and the dialogue and events gets clichéd to the point of silliness. Goodman utters a line as a firefight begins that when you paraphrase it is basically "our chances of winning jack and shit...and shit just left town." As the characters start finding their way to Heaven one way or another, one character's demise was met with exchange looks of laughter with me and my wife. It's as if Kevin Smith's directing ability has progressed, while his writing has regressed. Both Clerks films, Chasing Amy and even Jersey Girl were more personal and thus more poignant films in their own ways. It's as if he liberally borrowed from two film genres without putting much of his own voice into it, but wants to dazzle people by saying, "Look, I'm directing better!"
I get that he wants to take the marketers (and their costs) out of marketing a movie and thus transform the landscape of independent cinema. I respect it, I appreciate it. And to tailor a soliloquy that Smith used from Walter Gretzky, it may be better to be where the puck is going to be rather than it is, but when you're skating on crappy ice, you're not going to go anywhere, and that's what Red State does. For 88 minutes.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, Red State flies in the face of what a normal Kevin Smith film looks like visually as well. Once the film gets going, it's mainly shot with handheld cameras, with some instances the equipment being harnessed onto the actors. The disc juggles the shooting styles well, with little to no edge enhancement or image haloing. The source material looks good and the picture looks natural without distracting noise or pixilation issues. Solid looking disc, this.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is excellent. The soundstage is broad and the experience immersive, and that's before the moment when the firefight gets going, when it becomes downright reference material-esque. Bullet hits strafe through all speakers, the minor accident on the dark dirt road sounds clear and low-end fidelity ranges in everything from shotgun blasts to smaller ammunition thuds. After watching (and listening) to this film, it's clear that Red State is not your typical Kevin Smith movie in technical qualities either.
When it comes to DVD extras, Kevin Smith has always been consumer friendly and Red State is no exception to the rule. We know he's a bit of a talker, and the big extra here is "Red State of the Union," a series of podcasts, er, smodcasts, where Smith interviewed various members of the cast and crew while opening each installment with a clip from the film. First up is "Hear The Teaser" (41:10) where Smith aired the teaser in a small theatre and took questions/answered feedback on it. "The Harvey Boys" (27:39) is where Smith's producer Jon Gordon joins Smith and answers questions on his origins, how he first found Smith and the first Clerks film, and how this film impacted him from a producer's aspect. "Splinter of the Klein's Eye" (37:06) is where Smith and the film's Cinematographer David Klein discuss their work with one another and Klein gets into some of his process in shooting Red State both logistically and technically. "Caster Master" (1:04:03) is where Casting Director Deb Aquila (who also appears in the film as a high school teacher) recalls her process in securing the names for the production and how she approaches casting in general. It also included a funny story from Smith on his attempt to get Samuel L. Jackson for the film before landing Goodman. With "Canado!" (1:10:55), Assistant Director Adam Druxman recounts his work with other directors and how he got involved with Smith, along with how an Assistant Director works and the production issues with this film. "Brains and Braun" (52:35) Nicholas Braun, who plays Billy Ray (one of the boys in the film) talks about his work on set and what he was trying to go for with the character. Wrapping things up is "Parks City" (1:28:02), where Parks waxes nostalgic on growing up, some of his work long before his career revival in the mid-1990s, and his thoughts on working with Smith and on this production. The first couple these installments start to smell of sycophancy after a while, but the Aquila and Klein episodes are very good installments and worth listening to, to say nothing of a fascinating segment on Parks. Regardless of your position on Smith, these are excellent conversations.
These things would seem to be better than a commentary, so Smith has omitted one from the disc. The making of on the film itself is a bit thin for me, but it's lengthy and includes most all of the cast members. The first part (22:30) covers the cast's individual thoughts on the story, as well as Smith's on this change in direction for him, and the process on securing the money for the film is recounted. Part two (21:17) touches on how the film was shot both technically and logistically, and the furor surrounding the WBC protests and Smith's subsequent distribution ideas are show. Put together, the making of is decent, though I wasn't wowed by it. Next is Smith's speech from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, replete with introduction (35:34). The speech itself has gotten some grief in terms of being more spectacle than substance, but I didn't think it was that big a deal and from a financial standpoint would seem to make a lot of sense, but that's another discussion for another time. Three deleted scenes with introductions follow (30:54), and the scenes themselves are okay though nothing special.
Next is "A Conversation With Michael Parks" (17:56), where he discusses coming onto the film in a little more detail than from the smodcast. His off-topic anecdotes are the things to marvel at and this is no different here. A poster gallery and two trailers (4:44), both with introduction by Smith, round out the disc.
Red State is more notable for Kevin Smith's directorial progress than anything else that's occurred on or off set, and if the story was any good then it may actually truly be his best film to date. Technically the film looks and sounds great, and includes a veritable bounty of Kevin Smith-introduced extras, so for fans of Smith it's worth renting at the very least, but you may find yourself getting rid of this if you buy it (just as I'm planning).